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Bird-Friendly Gardens

May 29, 2020 ● By Sheryl DeVore

Photo by Pam Karlson

A Little Planning Can Lead to a Yard Full of Birds in Summer

by Sheryl DeVore

Pam Karlson lives in Chicago, about a half block north of the Kennedy Expressway with an O’Hare runway approach so close that planes fly directly over her house. Despite what may sound like an unfriendly place for birds, Karlson looks forward every June to seeing American robins feed serviceberry fruits to their young and ruby-throated hummingbirds sip nectar from penstemon blooms. In June, she also sees gray catbirds taking a dip in a small pond and house wren males enticing females to choose one of the nests he’s started to build.

Her garden attracts birds because she provides what they need. “It goes to the basics—food shelter and water,” explains Karlson, whose bird-friendly garden is featured in Douglas W. Tallamy’s new book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. Karlson’s garden is mentioned in a section called “The Power of Urban Lots.”

Karlson has documented more than 100 species of birds in her 50-foot-wide-by-100-foot-long space filled with more than 200 species of plants. A watercolor painter and graphic designer, she has given presentations to the Chicago Botanic Garden, Wild Ones and at various conferences on creating a bird oasis in the backyard. She’s also a Chicago Botanic Garden certified garden designer, and says anyone can create a bird-friendly garden with some research and trial and error.

Karlson planted what she calls her first bird tree in 1995—a hawthorn. “Our yard is small, but there are tall trees around us,” she says, acknowledging that fact also helps bring in the birds. “I wanted a medium-sized tree that would help birds. Once I put that in, my gardening focus started changing from just planting for beauty to planting what’s beautiful that also helps birds and pollinators. I did this all on my own. I’m learning all the time.”

Karlson shares, “I converted the backyard slowly over the years. I probably got really focused on birds when I started doing bird rescue 16 years ago.” She volunteers with Chicago Collision Monitors and Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation, both of which gather birds that have hit windows in Chicago and bring them to rehabilitation centers.

In her garden, Karlson uses native plants which attract insects and produce berries and seeds that birds eat. “You need to use different plants that bloom at different times of the year and at different heights. Bird diets are so diverse,” she says. “Do not use any pesticides, because insects are a part of birds’ diets. Insects are our friends. If you have a balanced ecosystem, you won’t be inundated by insects, since many become food for birds and other insects.”

George Adams, author of Gardening for the Birds: How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard, agrees. He writes that bird-friendly gardens also attract important native organisms that can barely be seen, as well as butterflies, moths and dragonflies. “Even if you only have a small place for planting, choosing plants that are beneficial to birds will add to the overall availability of habitat for our local bird populations,” he writes.

Karlson mostly grows perennials—plants that come up each spring. But she also plants some annuals such as black and blue salvia, native to tropical regions. “I put them in pots to provide extra nectar for the hummingbirds,” she says. Another Illinois native plant that birds favor is serviceberry, with fruits that ripen in June. “Robins love them,” she says. “So do cedar waxwings.”

The waxwings also visit a stream she installed with a small pond about 15 years ago. The water features add to the diversity of birds she sees in June, including yellow warblers, which love water, as well as gray catbirds. Both species nest in the region. “Water is a big component,” Karlson says, especially running water. Gardeners can also purchase items to create that sound; for example, a bubbler can be placed in a bird bath.

“In summer, there’s so much bird activity. Most of the nesting is going on in the yards around us, and I think the birds use our yard for food,” Karlson says. A pair of robins found a neighbor’s downspout a perfect place to build a nest and raise young. “It’s been going on and off for about 10 years now,” she notes. “It’s really cool when they build the nest. They grab their nesting material from our yard. I’ve watched them grab mud from the side of the pond and stream.”

Karlson also puts up house wren boxes. Male house wrens start building a nest in all of them and show them off to the female, which selects her favorite to start a family. “When June rolls around, the house wrens are paired up,” Karlson says. “Last year, I was able to see the babies hanging out in the garden being fed by the parents for at least a week.” She’s also had young chickadees and northern cardinals in her yard.

Karlson also feeds birds sunflower, safflower, thistle and suet year-round using different types of feeders. In May, she puts grape jelly and oranges out for Baltimore orioles. By mid- to late June, the orioles don’t come to the feeders, but she knows they’re nesting in the area and have switched to an insect diet while raising young.

Karlson hopes others will join in her crusade to create bird-friendly yards. “I’m a one-woman show. A regular person can do this with their own sweat,” she says. “It’s a joy to watch the birds in your yard in summer.” Especially during the stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic, she says watching birds in her yard helps relieve stress. “I’m so grateful for putting in all that effort into creating a habitat for birds, and the payoff during this isolation has been phenomenal.”

Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature. She also writes nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications.


Bird-Friendly Garden Resources:

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a free book, Landscaping for Wildlife, online at

Gardening for the Birds, by George Adams.

Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds, by Mariette Nowak.

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Doug Tallamy.

Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, by Doug Tallamy.